A Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web: Where to Draw the Line?

On September 4th, 2007, Joseph Smarr, Marc Canter, Robert Scoble, and Michael Arrington, four prominent figures in the social media world, authored a “Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web.” This blog posting outlined simple inherit “rights” every user of social networking sites should receive, and calls to all site of the open social web to adhere.

To begin, I agree with the assertion of the three fundamental rights: ownership, control, and freedom of your personal information. These are basic rights we should always have as human beings, online and off. I think we can all agree to these crucial points.

What I do not think needs to be mandated is the syndication of your personal information. Social network sites should be free to offer whatever kind of syndication options they chose, and in no way should anything be required. Though undeniably advantageous it is for them to offer plenty of syndication options, it is still a technical issue that should be addressed individually by each social website on their own.

There is, however, one aspect of control of online information that these rights do not address.

After reading through some of the comments, I discovered one crucial rule I think they’re missing in this bill of rights: “the right to know who is collecting what and for what purposes.” Whit McNamara suggested this in reference to Duncan Work’s “A Call for a Social Networking Bill of Rights.”

I think we have the right to know who is doing what with our information. Are they letting advertisers target us based on our marital status? Maybe by our interests? Facebook is a tangible culprit of this act. They allow groups to show us advertisements based on the information we list in our profile, no matter how secure we set our privacy level. It may not seem like a big deal to have these ads running alongside our profiles, however, it means that certain aspects of our profiles, which we assume were private, are now not. If they are accessing this information to help display ads, for what other purposes could they be reading this information? If we would like our information to remain private, it should not be possible for advertisements to hone in on these details.

It is the same case with Google. Their AdSense appearing around the web targets users based on the websites they are currently using. However, running AdSense through our email or personal documents is another story. Clearly there is some kind of script that is running through every personal note we write, to and from one another, to produce those advertisements. Though I can’t imagine these algorithms are gathering and storing data for longer than the time needed to produce appropriate ads, but nevertheless it makes me uncomfortable to think about. Users should have the right to keep information in their email private, and not have it accessible to google everytime they write a new message.

To answer the topic in question… yes, I believe we need a bill of rights for the social web. There is enough personal information out there that needs to be protected; especially the control over who uses your information and for what purpose. However, I think it should be mandated based on the control of privacy, NOT on the base of syndication of the information in particular.

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